The Working Waterfront

Maine should welcome immigrants… again

Workforce, and business start-ups are benefits

By Tom Groening
Posted 2023-08-16
Last Modified 2023-08-16

Few countries were unscathed by the Great Recession, whose symptoms first appeared in the fall of 2008 and which metastasized six months later as U.S. unemployment rates nearly hit 10%. Scary times, and certainly unprecedented in most of our lifetimes.

One country that was hit especially hard was Iceland. The country’s three largest commercial banks defaulted, the currency dropped by 35% against the euro, and unemployment hit 10%.

Just before those unsettling days, I joined the Bangor Daily News editorial desk, and when the Iceland news was dominating headlines, I wrote an editorial I knew would be provocative but also believed was factually and logically sound.

French-Canadians traveled, often on foot, from Quebec to work in mills in Biddeford, Saco, Lewiston…

My argument was that Maine, which had flat population growth and the oldest-in-the-nation median age (which has now increased to 45.5), might consider offering expedited and supported immigration to those looking to relocate from Iceland. The nation has a strong fishing economy, like Maine, and a large tourism sector, also like our state. And of course it has a cold climate like ours.

And a fun, very random fact: Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” was inspired by the band’s stop in Iceland.

Well, readers didn’t find my views sound. In those years, online readers could post almost anything they wanted in the comments section of the website. And comment they did, suggesting what I had offered was a new low for the newspaper.

The editorial generated a few dozen uniformly critical comments for two or three days, then finally, a reader with an academic background (possibly a university professor) weighed in, noting that Maine’s economic growth has centuries-old ties to immigration.

French-Canadians traveled, often on foot, from Quebec to work in mills in Biddeford, Saco, Lewiston, Brunswick, and other communities. Italian stonecutters came to Frankfort in Waldo County to work the quarries. Town names throughout the state—New Sweden, Norway, and Denmark—suggest new residents honoring their home countries.

I felt a little vindicated. But immigration remains a charged issue, and is usually more so when times are hard.

There’s an odd disconnect between Republican elected officials whose demands for impervious borders win voter support, yet whose donors quietly tell them that immigrant labor is essential to their businesses.

The term “illegal immigrant” conveys a somewhat inaccurate concept; most of those crossing into the U.S. are seeking asylum, which is allowed under law. But establishing that yes, a family fled because their teen daughter was being targeted as a sex slave by a drug gang in Central America may not be easily documented.

Still, quotas and standards are reasonable and responsible, and officials can’t ignore thousands sneaking across the border.

President Reagan brokered and signed a law that granted amnesty to 2.7 million immigrants in 1986, and there was no worker shortage. Today, businesses are having to forego revenue opportunities because they lack the staff to do the work.

What if states had more flexibility in dealing with federal immigration policy?

In Maine, some important economic sectors are already leaning heavily on immigrants—New Mainers, as they have been dubbed—such as seafood processing, lodging, restaurants, and other service businesses.

New Mainers must be seen as a vital resource for a bright future. They are younger than that oldest-in-the-nation median age, and so they will be in the workforce longer. Being in the workforce means they keep our businesses humming and they pay more taxes than retirees. They start families, which means they keep our schools having enough numbers to function.

And they start businesses at a much higher rate than native-born folks.

Many of those who serve us lobster rolls or clean our hotel rooms  at coastal towns like Boothbay Harbor and Bar Harbor, working on temporary visas, send as much of their income they can home to family. Wouldn’t it be better if they kept that money here?

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront. He may be contacted at